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17 August 2014

Unter Geiern (1964)

As the second post in our new weekly series of film specials, today the Euro-Western Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964), based on one of the Winnetou novels by Karl May. It starred Stewart Granger as Old Surehand, Elke Sommer, Götz George and Pierre Brice as Winnetou. Unter Geiern, released in the US as Frontier Hellcat, was a co-production between West Germany, France, Italy and Yugoslavia, and was shot in Germany and Yugoslavia.

Götz George, Elke Sommer, Stewart Granger, Unter Geiern
German postcard. Photo: publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Elke Sommer, Götz George and Stewart Granger.

Götz George, Unter Geiern
German collectors card. Photo: Constantin / Rialto. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Götz George.

Old Surehand


Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) was the fourth in the series of 1960s European Westerns based on Karl May's Winnetou character.

For the first time  Stewart Granger stars as Old Surehand, although in Karl May's novel Old Shatterhand occurs as the main character. As 'Surehand', his hand is so sure that he can split an arrow aimed at him with a bullet in mid-air! Even Robin Hood would have been flabbergasted.

So Granger took over from Lex Barker as Winnetou's white 'blood brother', although his  age and stature did not resemble those of Karl May's character. In the books Surehand is a man with a troubled past, a tormented soul seeking redemption. But the Old Surehand played by Granger is, quite on the contrary, a jolly good fellow, who’s wearing Sunday trousers under buckskin.

The female lead role was played by Elke Sommer, and co-producer Artur Brauner asked Pierre Brice to return as Apache Chief Winnetou.

The young Mario Girotti, now better known as Terence Hill, played a supporting part as Baker Jr and the Romanian Gojko Mitic played the Indian Woladeh. In the following years, Mitic became one of the most beloved film stars of Eastern Europe as an Indian rebel in several Defa Westerns.

In Unter Geiern/Among Vultures, the experienced trapper Old Surehand and Winnetou investigate the murders of a frontier mother and daughter in Llano Estacado, a border area to New Mexico and Texas. The surviving husband, farmer Baumann, believes that his wife and daughter were murdered by Indians of the Shoshone tribe, but Old Surehand suspects that it is the work of a gang of bandits known as The Vultures, who disguise themselves as Indians while committing their crimes.

When attractive Annie (Elke Sommer), who was to deliver precious diamonds to Baumann, is kidnapped by the Vultures, Winnetou, Old Surehand and their friend Old Wabble pursue the gang. Meanwhile, the young Martin Baumann (Götz George) tries to free Annie.

Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 1 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964). Caption: "Nach herzlicher Verabschiedung von Frau und Tochter reitet Farmer Baumann, 'der Bärenjäger' genannt, mit seinem Sohn Martin zum Bärenjagd." (After a warm farewell of his wife and daughter, farmer Baumann (Walter Barnes), called 'the bear hunter', rides with his son Martin (Götz George) to the bear hunt).

Pierre Brice, Walter Barnes and Götz George in Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 2 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Pierre Brice as Winnetou. Caption: "Spuren von gerissenen Lämmern führen Baumann und seinen Freund Winnetou, der sich der Jagd angeschossen hat, direct zur Höhle des Bären. In mutigem Kampf wird das Ungetüm erlegt." (Traces of torn lambs lead Baumann and his friend Winnetou, who has joined the hunt, directly to the cave of the bear. In a bold fight the monster is killed.)

Pierre Brice, Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 3 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Pierre Brice as Winnetou. Caption: "Schüsse zerreißen der Stille des Tales. Fünf weisse Reiter werden von Indianern verfolgt. Einer von ihnen stürzt vom Pferd, aber Winnetou kennt den Toten nicht." (Shots rip the silence of the valley. Five white riders are pursued by Indians. One of them falls off his horse, but Winnetou does not know the dead.)

Götz George, Walter Barnes, Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 4 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Götz George and Walter Barnes. Caption: "Rauchwolken in Richtung von Baumanns Ranch künden Unheil an. Von einer schreckligen Ahnung ergriffen, reiten die drei Jäger in rasendem Galopp zur Farm zurück." (Clouds of smoke in the direction of the Baumann Ranch herald disaster. From a horrible foreboding seized, the three hunters ride at a furious gallop back to the farm.)

Pierre Brice, Gojko Mitić, Stewart Granger, Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 10 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Gojko Mitic, Stewart Granger and Pierre Brice. Caption: "Winnetou hat von einem Hügel aus den Überfall beobachtet. Man ist sich einig, dass es sich nur um die berüchtigten Geiern handel kann. Woladeh sollte auch beseitigt werden, weil er zu viel vom Banditenüberfall auf Baumann's Ranch wusste." (Winnetou has watched the raid from a hill. Everyone agrees that it can only be the infamous Vultures gang. Woladeh should also be eliminated because he knew too much of the bandit raid on Baumann's Ranch.)

Götz George and Miha Baloh in Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 15 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Götz George (left) and Miha Baloh (right). Caption: "Annies Blicken entgeht es nicht, wie der Offizier dem 'Prediger' einen Zettel zusteckt. Old Surehand erkennt in ihm ein Geier-Mitglied. Im entstehenden Kampf wird der falsche Soldat getötet, aber der Prediger kann unbemerkt entfliehen." (It does not escape Annie's eyes, that the officer hands a note to the 'preacher' (Miha Baloh). Old Surehand recognizes a Vulture member in him. In the resulting fight, the fake soldier is killed, but the preacher can escape unnoticed.)

Stewart Granger in Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 28 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964). Caption: "Old Surehand und seine Begleiter werden auf dem Weg zum Treck von Schschonen vervolgt. Mit seiner berühmten 'sicheren Hand' macht Old Surehand einen Indianer kampfunfähig. Baumann aber werd entführt und in das Lager der Schoschonen gebracht." (Old Surehand (Stewart Granger) and his companion are followed on the way to trek by Shoshone. With his famous 'safe hands' Old Surehand makes an Indian incapacitating. But Baumann is kidnapped and taken to the camp of Shoshone.)

Stewart Granger in Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 37 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Stewart Granger. Caption: "Lediglich Old Surehands Arme sind frei für sein Gewehrm das er zur Abwehr der Pfeile, aber nicht zum Schiessen benützen darf. Mit List und grossem Geschick wehrt sich Old Surehand seiner haut. Keiner der Pfeile trifft." (Only Old Surehand's arms are free for his rifle that he can use to ward off the arrows, but may not use for shooting. With cunning and great skill, Old Surehand defends his skin. None of the arrows hits.)

Pierre Brice, Gojko Mitic, Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 40. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Gojko Mitic and Pierre Brice. Caption: "Wokadeh und seine Krieger, dem Häuptling zur Seite Winnetou, reiten in das 'Tal der Todes' um Oitka-Peteh beizusetzen. Das Tal ist eine Stätte des Verwüstung. Wokadeh erkennt nun die wahren Banditen, last Baumann frei und verspricht Winnetou Hilfe bei den Jagd nach den Geiern." (Wokadeh (Gojko Mitic) and his warriors, the chief at Winnetou's side, ride into the 'valley of death' to bury Oitka-Peteh. The valley is a place of Desolation. Wokadeh now recognizes the true bandits, he lets Baumann free and promises Winnetou to help in the hunt for the Vultures.)

Götz George, Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 43 (1-64). Photo: Constantin / Rialto. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (1964, Alfred Vohrer). Caption: "Nur allzugern sind die Geier bereit, Martin zu hängen." (All too glad, the vultures are ready to hang Martin (Götz George).)

Mario Girotti (Terence Hill) and Mila Baloh in Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 45 (1-64). Photo: Rialto. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures with Mario Girotti (Terence Hill) as Baker and Mila Baloh as Reverend Weller. Caption: "Einige Siedler, die ebenfals mistrauisch geworden sind, halten Weller (Mila Baloh) in Schach. Mann beschliesst sowohl Martin as die Geier im Auge zu behalten." (Some settlers, who have also become suspicious, hold Weller in check. They decide to keep an eye on both Martin as the Vulture.)

Sieghardt Rupp in Unter Geiern
German postcard, no. 57 (1-64). Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with at right Sieghardt Rupp as the gang leader of the Vultures. Caption: "Geierboss Preston fordert Old Surehand auf, allein in Felsental zu kommen, um Martin zu retten." (Preston, the boss of the Vultures (Sieghardt Rupp), calls Old Surehand to come alone in Felsental (Rocky Valley) to rescue Martin.)

Breathtaking cinematography


The first Karl May Western, Der Schatz im Silbersee/Treasure of Silver Lake (Harald Reinl, 1962) had been the most successful German film of the 1962/1963 season.

Director Harald Reinl and producer Horst Wendlandt then created a series of Euro-Westerns, all based on the novels by Karl May. Their next film, Winnetou - 1. Teil/Apache Gold (Harald Reinl, 1963) was in fact a prequel to Der Schatz im Silbersee which introduced Apache chief Winnetou and told how he met Old Shatterhand.

The script of Unter Geiern combines elements from two different Karl May novels, but Old Surehand appears in neither of them. The reason for this, is quite prosaic: originally Lex Barker, who had played Old Shatterhand in the first two films, would appear once again as Old Shatterhand alongside Pierre Brice, in a film called Winnetou und der Bärenjäger/Winnetou and the Bear Hunter, but Wendlandt thought Granger was a big catch, and asked his screenwriters to rework the entire script and write Granger/Old Surehand into it.

Most critics decided that Unter Geiern could not hold a candle to the earlier Karl May-films. The chemistry between Pierre Brice and Stewart Granger did not quite match that of Brice and Lex Barker.

At IMDb reviewer, Henri Sauvage, writes: "cinematography is occasionally breathtaking. (If possible, you should try to catch this in letterbox format, just for the gorgeous scenery.) The action sequences come off fairly well, too, and the bad guys are appropriately villainous."

Scherpschutter in his review at the Spaghetti Western Database: "Loyal fans of the series often call this one of the better entries. I can only partially agree. The film was aimed at a slightly more mature audience than the previous movies. The slaughter of the Baumann family (although not shown) is quite shocking, and the shootout near the end between the Vultures and the settlers, is remarkably violent. But the bulk of the movie is the usual heroic Karl May stuff, with Old Surehand put to a survival test by the Shoshones, and Winnetou leading the Indian braves in true cavalry style to the aid of the settlers when all seems lost. And then there’s Stewart Granger … Reportedly Granger was paid $ 75.000 for the part, which makes him the best-paid actor of the series, and he virtually directed his own scenes. He had completely different ideas about the movie than most other people on the set, and his approach led to a rather incongruous movie, with a dramatic story line of a young man, Martin Baumann, seeking the murderers of his family members, and a lot of funny and would-be funny scenes – featuring Surehand - thrown in."

Unter Geiern was a success in the German cinemas and was awarded the Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) for more than 3 million visitors in a year. The Karl May-series was to be continued...

Stewart Granger in Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 3. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Stewart Granger as Old Surehand.

Stewart Granger, Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 4. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Stewart Granger as Old Surehand.

Gojko Mitic, Stewart Granger, Pierre Brice, Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 5. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Gojko Mitic, Stewart Granger and Pierre Brice.

Elke Sommer and Stewart Granger in Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 8. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Elke Sommer and Stewart Granger.

Stewart Granger and Götz George in Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 11. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Stewart Granger and Götz George.

Elke Sommer and Götz George in Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 13. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Elke Sommer and Götz George.

Götz George in Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 16. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Götz George.

Götz George, Unter Geiern
German postcard by ISV, no. C 20. Photo: Constantin. Publicity still for Unter Geiern/Among Vultures (Alfred Vohrer, 1964) with Götz George.

Sources: Scherpschutter (Spaghettiwestern.net), Spaghettiwestern.net, Wikipedia (English and German), and IMDb.

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